Darwin’s Sacred Song

Dan Brown’s brother wrote a sacred mass about Charles Darwin

We may console ourselves,” Charles Darwin wrote in 1859,


that the war of nature is not incessant,
no fear is felt,
death is generally prompt
and the vigorous, healthy,
and happy survive and multiply.”

Darwin is recognized as a great scientist, but he was also a profound, and sometimes poetic, writer. His style of striking images, suggestive metaphors, and apt concision becomes apparent in Gregory Brown’s Missa Charles Darwin, which sets Darwin’s words to sacred music. Brown’s “Missa” (Latin for mass) adapts the genre of sacred music and liturgy to give expression to some of Darwin’s most important ideas – which are also the most theologically disturbing ones. The result is a strangely beautiful piece of music, made even more intriguing by Brown’s compositional practice of using a transcribed sequence of DNA from Darwin’s famous finches to set the musical score for the opening movement. The mass is being performed in Victoria and Vancouver on January 15th and 16th by the New York Polyphony, a vocal quartet, and may have other dates in 2019.

The theological difficulties in Missa Charles Darwin emerge from purposeful tension between the form of sacred music and the words, or liturgy, drawn from Darwin’s works. Brown draws these tensions through juxtapositions between Darwin’s words and the sacred musical form, but also between Darwin’s words and traditional elements of the sung liturgy. Thus, Missa Charles Darwin opens with some traditional liturgical elements –

Kýrie, eléison                      Lord have mercy
Christé, eléison                  Christ have mercy
Kýrie, eléison                      Lord have mercy

– which are then immediately joined to some not-so-traditional elements from Darwin:

One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings
namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.

One begins to see the difficulty of such juxtapositions when we realize that when we sing “Kýrie, eléison,” we are addressing our tearful petition – Lord, have mercy – to the same God who set in motion the system that Darwin described, in which the strongest, best adapted organisms are privileged to live and pass on their genes, while their weak, poorly adapted siblings die off. What if, in other words, the Lord sometimes does not have mercy? Or, worse, what if the Creator has crafted the amazing biodiversity of life on this planet through a system in which acts of mercy would prevent the system from working properly?

To understand the theological problem that Missa Charles Darwin raises, one has to grasp how the key adaptive mechanism of evolution works – natural selection. Darwin’s insight was that nature was operating as a kind of mindless analogue to what the nineteenth-century English breeders of his day were doing. It was well known that mating pairs in plants and animals sometimes produced offspring that had characteristics unlike either parent. For thousands of years, humans had been “artificially” selecting those random mutations that were advantageous to them – tastier fruit, larger seeds, a more productive herd. Darwin perceived that what he called “the war of nature” was operating analogously to give preference to animals and plants that were better able to feed and reproduce in their specific ecological niches. He was somewhat queasy about the problem of suffering after The Origin of Species was published, but he did not relent when some suggested the need for a supernatural supplement to the process.

“Natural selection” works because the lesser adapted, “weaker” organisms are less successful in passing on their genes. And, worse than that: they often get eaten instead, or starved of resources. So, New York Polyphony sings:

From the war of nature
from famine and death
from so simple a beginning
There is grandeur in this view of life.

One has to agree that there is grandeur here, but it’s a different kind of grandeur than that offered by the Bible’s story of the magnificent breathing into life of Adam and Eve as the crown of creation. The grandeur told by Missa Charles Darwin is, instead,

Produced and exterminated by slowly acting causes
Not by miraculous acts
[Not] by catastrophes
There is grandeur in this view of life
In its progress towards perfection
and whilst this planet has gone cycling on.

“For some listeners Missa Charles Darwin might seem inherently subversive,” Brown diplomatically admits. “It doesn’t take anything away from religion to also celebrate Charles Darwin.”

Brown’s comment is very true in the sense that the most common theological objection to evolution, that it contradicts the creation story told in Generis, is based on a misunderstanding of genre. It is a mistake that fundamentalist Christians make, as they take literally a genre they have not learned how to read. The opening creation stories in Genesis (actually there are two, if you read carefully) share conventions with other creation myths widespread in the ancient Near East. But this question of literalism and genre is a sideshow to the real theological problem.

The very bad news about the System Designer that natural selection tells us is, instead, about the problem of suffering. As Christian theologian John Haught describes the problem in God After Darwin, “How could a lovingly concerned God tolerate the struggle, pain, cruelty, brutality, and death that lie beneath the relatively stable and serene surface of nature’s present order?” Deepening this problem, geology lengthens the timespan of suffering well past the roughly 6,000 years of calculated biblical chronology. Haught continues:

Darwin has extended the story of life’s innocent suffering considerably, leading us down pathways of pain and bloodletting that stretch back through many millions of years. His “dangerous idea” has uncovered regions of terror and torture that we had never known about before.

Indeed. While Haught ultimately admits that his attempted theodicy of evolution, like other theodicies, “fails,” at least he takes the problem seriously. Other Christian thinkers sometimes shrug the problem off. For instance, Christian cell biologist Kenneth Miller writes in Finding Darwin’s God, “the brutality of life is in the eye of the beholder.” Fortunately, we think differently: our laws don’t just prosecute violent cruelty to other humans, but to animals as well. Missa Charles Darwin reminds us of the predation and starvation of animals that occurred over hundreds of millions of years.

In any case, if we imagine that the cruelty of starvation and predation and the experience of pain is a theological problem only when suffered by humans, we would still have to reckon with the question of when the “human” starts. Are we concerned only with the suffering of Homo Sapiens? How about that of our cousins the Neanderthals? Or of our shared ancestor Homo Erectus? How far back must we go before we don’t hold the System Designer responsible for the problem of suffering? How many billions or trillions of people, pre-Sapiens humanoids, and animals must have silently, non-linguistically, uttered this anguished cry that the System Designer have mercy – and then been met with silence as they were extinguished? Predation and starvation are not the accidental by-product of natural selection. They’re the engine. There must be starvation and predation, or else there won’t be change directed toward increased adaptation.

“Each organic being,” Brown’s mass tells us, “has to struggle for life / and to suffer great destruction.” Missa Charles Darwin gently evokes the dark theological vision that other artists have expressed as well – Cormac McCarthy’s famous novel Blood Meridian is a good example of the interest in the topic that sometimes shows up in contemporary literature. But in performances, Brown turns the screw of this problem by arranging for New York Polyphony to sing three traditional nineteenth-century folk hymns immediately following the conclusion of Missa Charles Darwin. At first this bizarre inclusion appears out of place, both musically and topically. But if we listen to the words carefully, we notice that they share a common trope: a speaker, dying from one cause or another, and expressing his imminent expectation of heaven. Brown’s subtlety, here, again lies in the art of silent juxtaposition. The three folk hymns’ ironic inclusion alludes to what is for many the theological solution to the problem of earthly suffering: a heavenly afterlife that somehow redeems or undoes the pain of bodily existence.

Thus, in one hymn, “The Dying Californian,” a ship passenger heading to the California Gold Rush is dying of fever. He addresses his family with departing words, ending with “I hear my Savior calling” as he dies. The irony of this redemptive afterlife is compounded when we realize, about the aspirational Californian’s fever, that his body is engaged in the very struggle that Darwin articulated. His fever is his body’s defense mechanism against what is probably a viral or bacterial infection; the virus or bacteria in turn is using (successfully) his body to reproduce itself in its own struggle for survival. From the System Designer’s point of view, the system is working exactly as it should, with the stronger virus or bacteria successfully triumphing over the weaker human, using his organized chemical material – that is, his body – for its own reproductive ends. “My hope in God is strong,” the passenger sings, but that God, as Barbara Kingsolver has a character remark in The Poisonwood Bible, is “rooting” not for individual humans, but for the System itself, including the microbes that eat children’s cornea in their own process of random mutation and natural selection.

The most famous complaint about suffering in the Bible, the Book of Job, did not have our current conception of the afterlife available to it as a solution. (It hadn’t been theologically invented yet in the Jewish tradition, though it is available in one well-known contemporary evangelical reimagining of Job, William Paul Young’s The Shack.) In the Book of Job, the protagonist calls for God to account for his unjust, individual suffering. When God finally appears, however, he draws Job’s attention to the System and its predation. Notice the hawk, God instructs Job:

It lives on the rock and makes its home
in the fastness of the rocky crag.
From there it spies the prey;
its eyes see it from far away.
Its young ones suck up blood;
and where the slain are, there it is. (39.28-30)

God sees not as humans see. Or, as Brown has Darwin sing, “let the strongest live and the weakest die.” The System Designer is the God of the system, not the individual. So when we next hear the New York Polyphony sing “Kýrie, eléison,” we might imagine that they raise their voice in protest, not petition. Perhaps we should reimagine the line not as a prayer but as an ethical argument that the System Designer should do what it seems not to have done so far: have mercy.

Christopher Douglas is the author of If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right and Professor of English at the University of Victoria. Find him on Twitter @crddouglas